This April 3 is the first Saturday of the month, a time when hundreds and hundreds of locals and OC residents would normally be streaming into Santa Ana’s downtown to experience dance performances, hear local musicians, see the latest art exhibitions, and connect with each other. 

Downtown restaurants and retail shops would be full with patrons, some regulars and others discovering businesses for the first time. Music would be pouring from our beautiful 2nd St Promenade, the nearby patios, and adjoining alleyways. Our local youth would be anxiously preparing to present their songs and dance moves in front of a community audience, with whole families alongside to support them. Art vendors would be engaging with curious passersby, for some their first opportunities to earn a small income from their passion projects. Our local politicians and city staff would be engaging authentically with their constituents. 

People come dressed up for Artwalk, to dance and cheer on the performers, to see friends or make new ones, to find reasons to come back, festivity filling the air. And everyone is invited to enjoy, at no cost (other than minimal parking fees, which support our city coffers). 

Gentrification is one of our most pressing concerns here in Santa Ana—especially for our artists who have been driven- and priced out of many local art spaces. But for these few hours each month, our community comes together for a “people’s Artwalk” to celebrate each other and all of our various experiences—immigrant, artist, business owner, vendor, youth and families—to envision a Santa Ana full of connection and beauty.

For the last seven years, I have organized the monthly Artwalk in our downtown. It starts with outreach to interested artists and performers who come from as far away as Riverside and Los Angeles. I also collaborate closely with community organizations, like our Santa Ana school district, community college, and local charter schools, interested gallery owners and various city officials. Many hours are spent coordinating all the necessary needs, working with light and sound engineers to securing the proper insurance and event permitting, and then making sure that all these working pieces are in place for showtime. But maybe most important of all, I always made sure that our artists were compensated fairly for their contributions. 

It is a tremendous amount of work for one person, but it is an absolute joy for me to support the arts in this way. You see, I came to Santa Ana over twenty years ago from Colombia and it was the arts community who first opened their arms to me. The amazing Avantgarden gallery, now on Broadway and 5th Street, nurtured my artistic spirit, showcasing my work and teaching me how to manage a gallery.  And I returned that generosity later, hosting workshops for children at our Thursday farmer’s market and coordinating an ongoing series of family arts events at the MainPlace Mall. As my connections and experience expanded, I have developed strong relationships working with partners at ArtsOC, Bowers Museum, and Chapman University.  

I see the potential for so much more as well. I see musical performances and poetry readings happening in the twenty-plus new parklets recently installed in downtown, encouraging people to explore beyond the promenade. I see maker workshops popping up, enticing our families to create art and STEM projects together. I see an expansion of events like Dancing in the Streets where people gather to dance cumbia, celebrating the cultural heritage of so many Santanero/as and encouraging us all to get fit at the same time.  The arts community here in Santa Ana is only growing, with many returning home now that there are more opportunities for them to live and work here as artists. Our thinking about how the arts can reach and connect with more people here should grow as well. 

But with COVID closures and consequent cuts to city budgets, this all changed. In August 2020, I was told there was no longer an Artwalk budget. And now there is no one here in Santa Ana organizing or planning the future of what this important community event will look like once we are permitted to gather and celebrate again in our downtown. 

This is such a shame for Santa Ana, for all the businesses who benefited and want it back, for all the artists who were emerging and crafting an artistic future for themselves. It is a shame that we proclaim ourselves to be a “city of the arts” and yet we don’t actually invest in the most successful and regularly-attended arts event our region has to offer. It is a shame that Santa Ana will forsake this organic opportunity to imagine itself differently than we are often made out to be by outsiders. Artwalk is a powerful vehicle for building our community, for economic revitalization in our downtown and, to survive, it must be a budget priority for the City of Santa Ana moving forward.

This is our moment if only, as the poet Amanda Gorman encourages, “if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Yenny Bernal is an artist and art teacher in the city of Santa Ana. She has been active in the local arts community for the past 15 years, coordinating the Santa Ana Artwalk for the last seven of them, and recently founded Uplifting Soul Art Events.  

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